Profs and Pints DC presents: “The Pagan Roots of Late Winter Holidays,” a look at how ancient fertility rituals, Roman myths, and early challenges to Christianity gave us Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras, with Larissa “Kat” Tracy, professor of medieval literature at Longwood University.
On the surface, at least, the holidays we celebrate near the transition of winter into spring have confounding contradictions. The beheading of the pious Saint Valentine is commemorated with lovemaking. Fat Tuesday’s debauchery arose as a way for Catholics to brace for the abstinence of Lent.
It all makes more sense, however, when we look back to seasonal celebrations in ancient Rome and Ireland, and account for Christianity’s knack for absorbing and incorporating earlier traditions and mixing them with a host of religious sentiments.
Coming to DC’s Hill Center to help us make sense of it all is Professor Kat Tracy, is a medievalist who has written extensively on the synthesis of Christian and non-Christian traditions in medieval literature and culture. She’ll be serving up an assortment of lessons about the strange and dramatic origins of this February’s holidays (sparing George Washington and the presidents, of course.) It’s a talk that will forever change how you think about the season’s celebrations.
Professor Tracy will talk about how the celebration of love associated with Valentine has its roots in the pre-Christian Roman celebration of Lupercalia–the February 15th Festival of the Wolf–when certain young men ran naked through parts of the city and tapped women with goat-skin whips dipped in blood out of a belief it would make them fertile. Also in the mix is the ancient Irish festival of Imbolc, the February 1st halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, marking the beginning of spring and the season of rebirth. Christians there transformed it into the feast of Saint Brigid, whose story has been found to share common traits with a pagan Irish goddess of the same name.
From there, Dr. Tracy will discuss how Mardi Gras and Carnivale are Christian extensions of earlier Yuletide rites that stretched well into February, filling the time between winter and spring.
Her talk will leave you with a much richer understanding of how much the medieval world shaped our current lives. (Advance tickets: $13.50 plus sales tax and processing fees. Doors: $17, or $15 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later.)